If you've been following this blog for any length of time, you'll know that I don't write about anime hardly at all. I consider myself a fan, and I've been watching more anime recently thanks to the wonders of Netflix, but as I stated before, "everything I'd like to write about I watched too many years ago to remember fully, and most of the things I've watched recently either aren't things I care to write about, or else I'm not a big enough fan to do a post that'll do the anime justice." Well, I believe I've found one more exception in the form of Clannad and Clannad After Story.
One look at Clannad's Wikipedia page tells me I'd be in way over my head if I attempted to make any explanation of the greater Clannad fandom, so I'll stick with what I know: Clannad is not the kind of show I ever imagined myself liking, let alone getting angry at for not liking. I watch shows with guns and spaceships and rabbits that transform into spaceships; yet, for a time, I was watching the slice-of-life high school drama of Clannad and asking my wife, "WHY DO I LIKE THIS SO MUCH??"
For a time, mind you.
We determined that it was refreshing to watch something...normal. No undead hordes to fight; no bathtubs connected to parallel worlds; no weird science binding your little brother's soul to a suit of armor. Just a socially maladjusted guy in his last year of high school, his troublemaking loudmouth friend, and a half-dozen female classmates with their own unique reasons for getting together with the main character.
I mean, personalities.
Clannad is all about the relationships between friends, family, and romantic interests, and it's the characters that really drive the show. I didn't care much about the drama club they were trying to form, or the cherry trees they were trying to save, or the rival gangs they somehow got involved with; I wanted to see the reasons behind protagonist Okazaki's strained relationship with his father, or the ridiculous showdowns between Sunohara the rabblerouser and Tomoyo the tough girl, or the antics between the playful parents of Okazaki's eventual love interest, the innocent Nagisa.
When Clannad sticks to everyday stories about everyday people, it's surprisingly enjoyable to me. Between the writing and the voice acting, the characters are complex and amusing enough to remain interesting, even when not a single thing blows up. It's only when the frustratingly mysterious and potentially supernatural events start happening that I put on my purple Hulk shorts and get angry.
As I said, Clannad was refreshing because it was normal. No "reality, with a twist," just good ol' fashioned "boy likes five girls and won't ask any of them out for fear of hurting the others' feelings." Throughout the first half of the show, we were teased by occasional sci-fi/fantasy elements that always ended up being perfectly normal once we understood what was going on--every time we were afraid Nagisa was from another planet, we'd soon discover she was just reciting lines from a play; that kind of thing. It was enjoyable to watch the show test the boundaries of reality without ever ceasing to be realistic.
When we learned that starfish-obsessed little Fuko might be the ghost of a girl in a coma across town, we wrote it off as superstition. When Fuko started disappearing from everyone's memory, we counted on it being some unthinkably coordinated class prank. Once it became clear that her disappearance wasn't a prank, the only rationalization we could come up with was that Okezaki was perhaps the one in a coma and had imagined all this. It wasn't long before reality had been breached by fantasy--unnecessary, poorly explained fantasy--and we were hearing about mystical orbs of light and tiny, secret universes connected to our own.
Granted, we might have seen this coming. Throughout both Clannad and Clannad After Story are brief segments featuring a young girl who looks strikingly like Nagisa, and a little robot that looks strikingly like an Ewok. They have nothing to do with Tomoyo becoming student council president or Okazaki getting a job with the power company; their primary function, as best as I could tell, was to annoy viewers until whatever metaphor they conveyed was brought to light. Like anything else in the series that smacked of the supernatural, I was expecting these segments to be easily explained as something symbolic, imaginary, or misconstrued later on. As it turned out, we had been watching a legitimately real alternate dream reality starring Nagisa's daughter and Okazaki the robot. Or something like that.
I call this "Sunshine Syndrome": watching something go in a direction you don't like, and hoping against hope that things will turn out differently than they look like they're gonna, even after the point of no return. Clannad effectively dumped a fantasy Kool-Aid packet into the refreshing water of its story, but never bothered to stir in any sugar to make it palatable. We kept watching, wishing for an explanation that would clarify and justify these supernatural plot twists. It wasn't until a few episodes before the end of the sequel series, Clannad After Story, that it was revealed this whole business was a total waste of our time.
This was not a situation like the end of Neon Genesis Evangelion where everything suddenly goes from making sense to not making sense to the casual viewer; this was a situation like Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull where there are hints that there might be aliens, even though there doesn't need to be aliens, and then aliens show up in the last five minutes because wouldn't it be fun to have aliens. It damages the integrity of a work of fiction to include a wild plot twist that completely redefines the fictional universe for the sake of this one thing that might be neat to have.
Now, I'm willing to concede that the translation might be somewhat to blame. Netflix offered only the dubbed version, not subbed, and it was apparent from some of the supposedly clever dialogue with Fuko and the hyper-intelligent Kotomi that we were missing valuable nuances lost from the original Japanese. Perhaps this alternate world business also made more sense before the translation.
As I understand from skimming Clannad's Wikipedia page, the series is based on an interactive story/dating simulation where the player, as Okazaki, can choose to pursue any of the girls as a romantic interest. With that in mind, it makes more sense that a few episodes of Clannad and Clannad After Story are "what if?" scenarios that explore what would have happened if Okazaki had started dating Tomoyo, or gotten entangled with twin sisters Ryou and Kyou, or if he had still married Nagisa but never had to suffer through her death after childbirth or the eventual death of their daughter. These alternate reality episodes are certainly intriguing, but the series could have fit them in without ever going off the deep end with fantasy explanations.
One option: Don't even bother to explain them. Let them be bonus "what if?" scenarios, and leave it at that. Another option: Address the scientific possibility of alternate universes up front, instead of waiting halfway through the series to start a story arc that treats the subject like mystical forbidden research. There's no middle ground with fantasy: embrace it as fact, or leave it out entirely. Don't let it dribble all over something that is more satisfying and complete without it.
I'm annoyed about the whole situation because Clannad was shaping up to be the first totally normal, relatively serious slice-of-life anime I'd ever truly liked. Before the alternate timeline episodes started popping up, I'd even had a debate with my wife that Okazaki had absolutely no chemistry with Nagisa, and would have been better off getting together with Tomoyo (or, as I called her, "Kicky Girl," because I had a heck of a time remembering names in this show). I never debate fictional dating relationships in the hypothetical. I debate the canonicity of Star Trek episodes.
Clannad hooked me in a way I'd never been hooked before, which is why the sloppily resolved game-changing fantasy twist didn't just disappoint, but ruined the whole show. Now it fell into the category of "dramas with an element of fantasy," and having seen my fair share of Escaflownes and Fruits Baskets that seamlessly integrated fantasy elements into normal everyday life, Clannad couldn't stack up against the competition as a complete package.
I did like both Clannad and Clannad After Story. My interest waned when the charm of being a wholly "normal" anime was revoked. I felt vindicated when a whole episode was devoted to proving me right that Kicky Girl was a perfect match for Okazaki in some other timeline. It felt like drudgery to watch Okazaki pursue Nagisa for the next several episodes afterwards, knowing he had left behind the only girl who was both more encouraging and more encouraged by being closer than friends with him. I warmed up to the show again when Okazaki moved out and could see how much of a positive impact Nagisa had on him, and vice-versa. I became indifferent to the show after Nagisa died, and their daughter's death a few episodes later just felt hollow. Then there was the big flash of light where everything changed and no one had died, but by that point the idea of parallel universes and alternate timelines was a cheap excuse to bring in a happy ending and to cleverly stretch the budget through a few more episodes.
Perhaps in some alternate universe I'm writing about how great it was that Clannad used thoughtful explanations and effective foreshadowing to get me excited about all the different branching storylines--some happy, some sad--all the while leaving enough clues to make the biggest mystery of the show be which timeline was the "real" one, instead of why a few mishandled supernatural elements had to sully what was otherwise an enjoyable and compelling character-centric story.